John Charles Kitching, Last Tide Carpenter of London Bridge

Laura Godfrey, Guildhall Art Gallery

Some years ago, the City of London Corporation acquired a portrait of a man called John Kitching. If truth be told it was not a painting which was ever likely to be hung centre stage or reproduced on a fridge magnet. It was modest and unassuming and there was little to distinguish it from the many other images of City gentleman painted at the time. What made it worthy of note was the mention of Mr Kitching’s unusual occupation.

John Charles Kitching, Last Tide Carpenter of London Bridge c1825. Artist unknown

Despite appearing to be made entirely of stone, old London Bridge contained a surprising amount of wood. Its nineteen arches rested on huge wooden piles driven deep into the river bed and the rocks and stones protecting these piles were in turn surrounded and encased in vast wooden structures called starlings. It was the Tide Carpenter’s job to maintain and repair all this timber, but since the Thames is a tidal river, working hours could be erratic. For much of the time the starlings were submerged under the water, so rather than being paid the more usual daily rate, the carpenters were paid ‘by the tide’.

John Kitching was the man in overall charge of this work. In addition to managing the carpenters, head ministered the payroll; ordered and allocated materials and liaised with contractors and suppliers. The Bridge House Estate records show that in 1790 he was being paid a salary of £100 and that by 1820 this had risen to £200 per annum.  

Old London Bridge during the frost of 1795 – 1796 by Daniel Turner (active 1782 – c1828)

So why was John Kitching the last man to hold this important role?  Old London Bridge was essentially a medieval structure and by the 1790s repair bills were averaging £4000 each year. In addition, as river traffic increased, barges were having to queue to pass through the narrow arches and the huge wooden starlings were beginning to restrict the flow of water, causing it to become unpredictable and potentially dangerous.

In 1800 a Parliamentary Select Committee was convened and after some lively debate between MPs and the Bridge House Estate, it was agreed that London was to have a new bridge. A design was finally agreed upon and on 1st August 1831 William IV declared the new river crossing well and truly open. The old bridge, which had remained in situ throughout, was finally dismantled later that same year. Much of the stone was repurposed and some of it can still be spotted in buildings and gardens throughout London and the south east. Little however remains of the timber. Occasionally, a snuff box crops at auction claiming to be made from wood salvaged from old London Bridge but apart from that no trace remains of the piles and starlings and stairways, so lovingly cared for by Mr John Charles Kitching.